NASSR Graduate Student Caucus Resources for Graduate Students of Romanticism Mon, 05 Feb 2018 22:56:28 +0000 en-US hourly 1 118134998 The Poetics of Silence in Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water Sun, 04 Feb 2018 22:14:13 +0000 Continue reading The Poetics of Silence in Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water ]]> While in Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) Guillermo del Toro evocatively engages with Victorian fin-de-siècle Gothic tales (especially those of Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood), the creative wellspring for his newest film, The Shape of Water (2017), pours from the Romantic period. It is Frankenstein meets melodrama (Thomas Holcroft’s A Tale of Mystery comes to mind), and it’s absolutely brilliant. Romantic Romanticists, this is definitely the movie you want to see for Valentine’s Day.

The story takes place in Baltimore in 1962, where a young mute woman, Elisa Esposito, works as a nighttime cleaner in a secret government lab for Cold War operations. The exposition reveals Elisa’s daily routine, which, although boring and somewhat lonely, is perforated with warmth by her friendships with Zelda, another cleaner at the lab, and her neighbor Giles, an aging gay advertisement illustrator. Suddenly, Elisa’s routine is disrupted when she witnesses the military bring a strange tank to the lab. She discovers it contains an amphibious humanoid creature, which the officials—especially Colonel Richard Strickland—are willing (and quite eager) to torture in an effort to gain advantage in the Space Race.

You can predict the rest of the story. But in case you can’t, SPOILER WARNING: woman sees entrapped and abused monster; woman and monster fall in love; woman saves monster and monster saves woman in turn. To reduce the film to these brief words, however, is agonizing, because the viewing experience of The Shape of Water utterly transcends plot and language. What we witness, to profound effect, is a poetics of silence. Elisa’s sororal rapport with Zelda, filial amity with Giles, and romantic intimacy with the thalassic prisoner is entirely developed through facial expression, gesture, music, and dance. It is truly extraordinary how actress Sally Hawkins manages to distinguish these different kinds of relationships without a single word. While Zelda and Giles provide dialogue to humorous, heart-warming, and harrowing effect, it is Elisa’s silence that always says the most.

Yet even while we are deeply affected by Elisa’s soundless poetics, the film seduces us to believe an ableist resolution is coming, where Elisa will be cured of her disability. Halfway through the film we learn the creature has magical healing powers. Subsequently, we are led to expect that, in time, he will caress Elisa’s neck and give her the power of speech. Surprisingly and delightfully, the actual ending does nothing of the kind. Indeed, the pelagic being does tenderly touch his beloved’s neck, but gives her gills instead of functioning vocal cords. The final shot features the two sensually touching underwater. Their intimacy, which had elegantly progressed up to this point with strictly corporeal communication, reaches its climax with permanent submarine silence. It is the ineffable at its finest.

Like the mute characters on the melodramatic stage in the early nineteenth century, Elisa participates in an archetypical figure of truth, innocence, and justice. But she is the very best of these things: idealistic without naïveté, honest without meekness, and virtuous without repressive prudery. Thank you, Guillermo del Toro for imbibing the great conventions of Romantic melodrama with a twenty-first century ethos.

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Charles Lamb on New Year’s Eve 1820: “No one ever regarded the First of January with indifference.” Fri, 05 Jan 2018 21:41:15 +0000 Continue reading Charles Lamb on New Year’s Eve 1820: “No one ever regarded the First of January with indifference.” ]]> If your inbox looks anything like mine this first week of January, it’s flooded with advertisements for gym memberships, discounted vitamins, and fancy planners that “guarantee” you reach your goals. I started wondering when the idea of a New Year resolution became such a widespread cultural phenomenon. The Romantic period seemed like a likely point of origin, given the increasing emphasis on individual experience.

“New Year’s Eve,” one of Charles Lamb’s Elia essays published in the London Magazine in January 1821, does not prove my hypothesis. But it does express an interesting attitude toward the New Year.

Elia begins by humorously likening the New Year to a birthday then transitions to a more pensive and lugubrious line of thought:

“Of all sound of all bells—(bells, the music nighest bordering upon heaven)—most solemn and touching is the peal which rings out the Old Year. I never heard it without a gathering-up of my mind to a concentration of all the images that have been diffused over the past twelve-month; all I have done or suffered, performed or neglected—in that regretted time. I begin to know its worth, as when a person dies.”1

Elia’s tone here is exactly what he attributes to the midnight bells—solemn and touching—as he leads us into a trap. By beginning with the heavenly, almost exultant, bells, we expect to experience the New Year with exhilaration. And indeed, we seem to in the “concentration of all the images” in that powerful parallelism of “all I have done or suffered, performed or neglected.” That dash is a kicker though. The energy of the remembrances are syntactically stultified, then dulled to a painful melancholy “in that regretted time.” Likening the Old Year to a recently deceased person sends us plummeting into still deeper dejection.

(Yes, this was the accompanying sketch in the 1905 edition I found)

Rather than feeling “exhilaration at the birth of the coming year,”2 Elia solemnly understands the New Year as a sign of aging, another step closer to death. This is all beginning to sound very morbid. But really, I don’t think Lamb’s essay is about indulging melancholy or even nostalgia for the old year. Rather, he confronts “this intolerable disinclination to dying”3 that haunts him on New Year’s Eve, and paragraph by paragraph transforms his melancholy and nostalgia into a rapturous celebration of his present life: “I am content to stand still at the age to which I am arrived; I am my friends: to be no younger, no richer no handsomer… Sun, and sky, and breeze, and solitary walks, and summer holidays, and the greenness of fields, and the delicious juices of meats and fishes, and society and the cheerful glass, and candle-light, and fire-side conversations, and innocent vanities, and jests, and irony itself—do these things go out with life?”4 The length of the zestful list with its relishing repetition of “and” overwhelms the concluding meditation on the afterlife with vivacity.

Building on the momentum of this delineation, Elia chastises the tombstones that exhort him to think of death and mocks the dead man’s “odious truism, that ‘such as he now is, I must shortly be.”5 Apostrophizing the deceased, Elia exclaims: “Not so shortly, friend, perhaps as thou imaginest. In the meantime I am alive. I move about. I am worth twenty of thee. Know thy betters! Thy New Year’s Days are past. I survive, a jolly candidate for 1821. Another cup of wine–…”6

What Lamb is ultimately criticizing is the typical attitude of looking to the future at the start of a new year. At first, he counters this anticipatory orientation by reflecting on the past. But this too proves unsatisfying. Rejecting both backward and forward-looking melancholy, Elia declares, “I am alive. I move about.” It is in this statement (not exclamation) that Elia finds tempered delight in the present and can therefore embrace the New Year with playful irony.

So really, it seems like Lamb is anti-New Year resolutions. All that prospection just brings you closer to death. Move about in your present moment, and have another cup of wine, good ol’ Lamb entreats us.

I suppose I should have looked at those earnest Victorians for the origin of New Year resolutions… Maybe there’s a chapter on it in Self-Help

[1] Charles Lamb, The Essays of Elia (J. M. Dent & Co., 1905), 54.

[2] Lamb, 55.

[3] Lamb, 59.

[4] Lamb, 58.

[5] Lamb, 60.

[6] Lamb, 60.

Introducing the New Managing Editor! Wed, 03 Jan 2018 15:41:08 +0000 Continue reading Introducing the New Managing Editor! ]]> The start of a new year seems like a good time for change, and I’m happy to announce that, as of today, Stephanie Edwards is taking over as Managing Editor of this blog.

It has been a privilege to work with so many brilliant colleagues during my time as Managing Editor, but I know the blog is in capable hands. I want to thank our bloggers for their hard work and our readers for their support.

Happy New Year, everyone!


Intimate Estrangement: Depression and Finding Community Through Texts Tue, 02 Jan 2018 18:58:31 +0000 Continue reading Intimate Estrangement: Depression and Finding Community Through Texts ]]> [Trigger warning: suicide, mental illness, self-harm]

When Carrie Fisher unexpectedly passed away in December of 2016, I was inconsolable. It was the day after Boxing Day and I was sat around the kitchen table with my extended family when I started scrolling through Twitter and began seeing tweets announcing her death. My eyes immediately began burning with tears and, as another member of my family saw the news on their phone and the group began talking about it, I excused myself to the bathroom. As soon as I shut the door I began to sob uncontrollably and remained in that state just long enough for my family to not suspect anything, wiped my tears, and rejoined them. I joined the conversation my family was having about her death and participated like any “normal” person would – acknowledging the sadness of the death of a celebrity you did not know and then moving on. What I could not tell my family in that moment was that I did know Carrie Fisher; I knew her intimately and she knew me, even though we had never met. We had spoken many times throughout my twenty-seven years of life, although not necessarily in the traditional sense. Our conversations happened through books, films, interviews, through our experiences and through our persisting bodies, all of which are intertwined with our illnesses.

Fisher lived with bipolar disorder and was an advocate for mental health awareness throughout her career. Although many celebrities advocate for mental health in some form, it is usually in a disembodied way that severs the celebrity from the stigma. What made Fisher special was that she rooted her advocacy in her own struggles – drug and alcohol addiction, body dysmorphia, and electroconvulsive therapy, to name a few – unabashedly exposing those struggles to the world and working outwards. In a 2009 interview with Vanity Fair, Fisher spoke about why she always remains so open and honest about all aspects of living with a mental illness, telling the interviewer that, “[i]f you claim something, you can own it. But if you have it as a shameful secret, you’re fucked.” After reading the interview, this quote became my mantra for dealing with my own depression and I promised myself that I would live like Fisher – accepting my mental illness as an integral part of myself and sharing that part of me like I would any other. What I did not fully know at the time of making that promise, and what I would not learn until quite a few years later, is that speaking your truth about mental illness is incredibly difficult, a fact that makes me admire Fisher more and more every day, even a year after her death.

This story has been one I’ve wanted to tell for a long time. My silence has not come from a place of shame or embarrassment, but from the inability to speak this story into being, an inability to express something that I didn’t fully understand. Recently, I took a course titled “Literature as Witness” where we read a mix of theoretical texts on witnessing and testimony, as well as fictional texts written by Canadian Mennonite authors. While reading one of those fictional texts, Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows, lots of things hit very close to home for me as a scholar, and lover, of Romanticism – from the Coleridgean title to many of my favourite Romantics being peppered throughout the text. It wasn’t until near the end of the book, however, that things moved from being close to home to hitting home right in the bullseye. The novel follows the story of two sisters – Elf and Yoli – and chronicles Elf’s struggle with depression and multiple suicide attempts. After Elf’s successful suicide attempt, her husband gives Yoli a package that contains a story written by Elf, titled Italy in August. Yoli opens to a page of the story and observes what her sister has written:

“I peeked at a random page and read a short paragraph in which the protagonist expresses her all-consuming passion for Italy, that she wants to go there because it’s where her ‘fictional sisters’ went. Then she listed some of these fictional sisters and the books they appear in, and how each one of them protected her in a way, pulled her up and out of life’s quicksand moments, the bullshit, the agony of being alive… She loved these books and they loved her back.”[i]

When I read this passage in the text I had to step back for a moment and then return to it, reading it over and over again. Yoli doesn’t mention the names of these fictional sisters but, based on their appearances earlier in the text and their attachments to and their own texts set in Italy, I can’t help but imagine Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley as two of the women Elf feels connected to. Wollstonecraft and Shelley are not fictional beings, per se, but their almost mythological status in the literary world makes them quasi-fictional, as does their status as long deceased. I don’t know whether this moment is true or a narrative flourish on Toews’ part and I don’t know whether the validity matters at all. What matters is this passage’s affective truth and its ability to bring into words something I’ve been struggling to come to terms with for almost two years.

Mary Wollstonecraft and I have at least two things in common: we never got the chance to meet Mary Shelley and we both tried to kill ourselves twice. Our methods were different (hers by drowning and mine by razorblade and a bottle of pills) but we both successfully failed in trying to take our own lives – for me, the only two things I’ve ever failed at. I obviously don’t know Wollstonecraft, in the traditional sense of the term, but I feel confident in positing that mental health potentially played a strong role in her suicide attempts, as it did in my own.

Depression is different for everyone who experiences it and my particular brand is like water. It comes in waves, always lapping at the shore, depositing debris on the surface and pulling objects back into the sea. But the tide always comes in and reigns it back, just long enough for me to get my bearings. Twice, however, the tide has been too late and the waves have crashed over the barricade and flooded everything in sight. Once violently, when I was in high school and tried to die, and once subtly, during the last year of my undergraduate degree. In high school, I could quantify my depression, justify it, which made it easier to understand. There were external factors that mapped neatly onto it and rationalized the whole experience. The second time was different. I was happy. Incredibly so. I had supportive friends and family, was excelling in school, and had a great job that I loved. So, when I woke up one morning and suddenly couldn’t find the will to get out of bed, when I started retreating away from my family and making excuses to not see my friends for months at a time, I was lost and, more importantly, utterly confused. What made it even harder was my choice to keep it to myself. In high school, I made it visible – I acted out and self-harmed. But this time, over ten years later, keeping it invisible, buried, silent, was a marker of success to me. If nobody suspects, then it doesn’t exist.

High-functioning or chronic depression is a difficult thing to live with. You can’t be mad at a loved one for not understanding your depression when it is something that you don’t even understand yourself. But it is a debilitating, festering type of wound to know that you are hurting the ones you love by just trying to exist. My brand, and I suspect Elf’s brand, of depression is hard to explain. But my best attempt usually goes something like this: it is a devastating loneliness. Not a loneliness caused by losing loved ones or being physically without others, but a loneliness from being without yourself. It’s horrific to realize that the one person you truly should always be able to count on – yourself – just isn’t there anymore. Instead, you are replaced with a sad, performative shell of yourself and left wondering if this is what it will be like for the rest of your life. You miss yourself deeply and achingly, and you feel as if no one can fill that space or begin to understand that kind of devastating loss.

Which brings me back to the last year of my undergrad. To cope with my depression, I, like many others, threw myself into my work. It gave me an excuse for my reclusiveness and my insomnia, and helped to fill, distract, and occupy my otherwise empty brain. I had just begun work on my undergraduate thesis on Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, an aptly (or not) chosen text about the mental and physical horrors of being the last man on Earth after a plague wipes out the human race. It is here where I entered into my fictional sisterhood with Shelley, where she, through the writing in her journals and letters, protected me, spent some time with me in the bullshit quicksand of life, and, ultimately, helped me understand and accept the agony of being alive. Shelley was the same age when she wrote The Last Man as I was when I was writing my thesis, and by the time the book was written and published she had lost multiple children, her husband, and one of her closest friends, been excommunicated from her family, was isolated from other friends due to vicious and false gossip spreading about her failures as a wife and a mother, was betrayed by another close friend, and was being forced to return to England from her beloved Italy by her stepfather. If anyone knew how to write about suffering and loss, it was Shelley – and she did. The passages, in her journal especially, about loss are simultaneously beautiful and heartbreakingly visceral. And she never “gets over it” or “gets better,” but she does become more and more resilient and persistent, and, through her, so did I.

I’ve only been thinking about literature as witness to something tangible to its author, as the text acting as a witness to the author’s trauma or to the traumas of their loved ones or community. I never imagined that bearing witness is exactly what occurred between Shelley’s texts and myself, that a text itself could bear witness to something the author could not know, could never anticipate. Bearing witness becomes a way of knowing outside of knowledge itself, a knowing of something unknowable. Impossibly unknowable. In this sense, Shelley’s texts listened to me and spoke back to me in a way that no living person in my life ever could have. The act of bearing witness to my trauma then became multiple, with Shelley’s texts acting as a “blank space,” to use Dori Laub’s term, on which I could inscribe my trauma, and Toews’ text being “the process and the place wherein the cognizance, the ‘knowing’ of the event is given birth to.”[ii] My relationship with Shelley confirms Felman and Laub’s hypothesis that the hearer of trauma needs to be removed from the situation but still cognisant of at least some part of it. Shelley and I are removed by centuries, by geography, and by time itself. But we have a “mutual recognition of a shared knowledge”[iii]: our melancholia. Her and I became “disparate bodies” whose mutual melancholia “remains steadfastly alive in the present” and allowed for me to confront my loss through “an ongoing and open relationship with the past”[iv]. Even though the terms of our melancholia are different – she tangibly losing everything and me intangibly losing myself – somehow, she became my witness and I, perhaps, hers. I hesitate to say the Shelley saved me, as that term is too neat and clean to explain what happened, but her texts did hear me. And, in the moment, that was enough. Toews’ text, in a similar way, has heard me as well, heard something that I didn’t even know I wanted to say. Elf, through Yoli, or Marjorie, through Miriam, have given me the ability to speak a part of my life that was, until now, unspeakable.

Mary Shelley and All My Puny Sorrows’ Elf have joined Carrie Fisher as three of the most important strangers in my life and in my mental health journey. The intimate estrangement between myself and these women is one of the most difficult aspects of my depression, and of my healing process, to explain – how can you explain the a/effect that a stranger, a celebrity, a fictional character, has on your embodied life? I need to make it clear that in this particular exploration I do not want to give credence to the notion that depression is universal, to attempt to pathologize Shelley’s grief, or to suggest that Elf’s experience with depression and Fisher’s with bipolar disorder are interchangeable and comparable to my own. What I am interested in parsing out is the ways in which these women and their experiences helped me with the seemingly impossible task of becoming a witness and testifying to my own experience. Part of becoming a witness is assuming “a responsibility for telling what happened” and testifying “to a truth that is generally unrecognized or suppressed”[v], and that is what I am attempting to achieve. The truth that I am testifying to is not only the truth of my own mental illness, but a truth beyond myself – that strangers, including celebrities and fictional characters, are valid and necessary witnesses to trauma even if they are not, nor ever can be, physically present as either speaker or listener.

Oftentimes, looking to figures outside of one’s “personal” circle of friends, family, and health specialists is considered to be a form of escapism, a symptom of mental illness rather than a coping strategy. I want to argue, especially as a student of literature, that strangers are and can be legitimate witnesses to trauma since, though their bodies are never physically present, they become embodied witnesses through other means – on paper and through film.

[i] Toews, Miriam. All My Puny Sorrows. Knopf Canada, 2014.

[ii] Felman, Shoshana, and Dori Laub. Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History. Taylor & Francis, 1992.

[iii]  Felman, Shoshana, and Dori Laub. Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History. Taylor & Francis, 1992.

[iv] Eng, David L., and David Kazanjian, eds. Loss: The Politics of Mourning. Univ of California Press, 2003.

[v] Frank, Arthur W. The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness, and Ethics. University of Chicago Press, 2013.

Mythologizing the Dissertation Wed, 13 Dec 2017 21:09:38 +0000 Continue reading Mythologizing the Dissertation ]]> In the spirit of Rousseau, I must confess. I confess that I have always held what is probably a peculiar interest in a rather particular narrative genre. This genre might best be described (perhaps also in the spirit of Rousseau) as “scholarly autobiography.” It is not quite the dissertation, or thesis, itself. Many of us, I’m sure, are already all too familiar with that genre’s idiosyncrasies, conventions, and requirements. In any case, the dissertation properly belongs in the realm of scholarship. Yet, neither is it really the conception, or account, that we all have in our minds of where we see our scholarship positioning us in relation to ongoing conversations with colleagues, or within our field more broadly. Nor is it even how we imagine our work will evolve in the future. Nevertheless, this genre pertains precisely to the dissertation, itself. Moreover, it is a genre that all of us, as graduate students, are deeply invested in. I speak, in particular, of the stories surrounding our dissertations. Often these are autobiographical, but many times they also take on the aspects of history, fiction, even myth: from whence our interests came, how they shaped our decisions to become scholars, and how they continue to guide us along what may well be for many of us our own personal “Quest Romance.”

What is the dissertation for – and to – each of us, and what will it help us to achieve, or gift to the world? How do these questions structure the stories we tell ourselves about our work? In the unfolding drama of a PhD, especially, I am certain that each of us has cast the dissertation in our own way, in a role that suits our stories. Perhaps the dissertation is a foe to be conquered after a long and heroic struggle. Or maybe it is a friend to return to in soft moments, to sit down with and converse. Perhaps, for some, it is a means to speak truth to power, or for others, a chance at redemption, recognition, or validation. Perhaps it is some distant star, a destination promising answers to questions that have transfixed us since youth. And for others, perhaps it is only an origin, a point of departure on what is sure to be a life-long journey in search of newer, brighter worlds. Perhaps some of us feel as though we are merely jousting windmills, while others are toppling giants. Perhaps many of us rather feel as though we are chasing ghosts, wrestling with angels, pursuing prize game, solving crimes or mysteries with our dissertations. And finally, with respect to arriving at our current research topics, for which of us was the trajectory straight and true, a dazzling ray of singular, purposeful direction splitting the obscurity of one’s past and future? And for which of us did it adopt a more meandering path, or sauntering pace? Did it compel one to wander for a time, lost or otherwise?

Of the last question, I can say that mine is a wandering tale. At some point, after wandering west from Ohio, I managed to stumble into a Master’s program at the University of Colorado–Boulder while exploring a curiosity about Romanticism and its legacies in the wider world. And it was there, in the foothills of the Colorado Rockies, where I met Juan – that legendary figure of Spanish origin, whose permutations we find in such diverse places as the writings of Kierkegaard and Camus; an opera by Mozart; innumerable stage productions, including Molière’s, Pushkin’s, and George Bernard Shaw’s; famous literary dopplegangers, like Casanova and Lothario; a nickname for the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic; and, of course, Lord Byron’s greatest poem. What was the significance of this figure, whose name is a byword for “seduction,” and why had his legend inspired so many disparate renditions in so many different formats?

In the spring of 2013, I was enrolled in a class entitled, “Wordsworth and Byron,” being taught by Prof. Jeffrey Cox. Don Juan was one of the last things we read during that semester. I vividly remember the day we covered that intriguing little note on mobilité appended to line 820 of Canto XVI. As the note reads,

In French, “mobilite,” I am not sure that mobility is English,

but it is expressive of a quality which rather belongs to

other climates though it is sometimes seen to a great

extent in our own. It may well be defined as an excessive

susceptibility of immediate impressions–at the same time

without losing the past; and is, though sometimes

apparently useful to the possessor, a most painful and

unhappy attribute.[1]

As the stanza relates of Lady Adeline, this quality is ultimately,  “a thing of temperament and not of art . . . And false – though true; for surely they’re sincerest, / Who are strongly acted on by what is nearest” (XVI. 821–24). If there was ever an epic virtue for modern times, surely this was it. If Achilles had his kleos, and Odysseus, his nostos – traits that came to define antiquity, itself – Juan had his mobilité, a feature that encompasses so well the seemingly facile (while in reality, “painful”) attributes of our anxious age: worldly, distractible, nostalgic, and hopelessly itinerant. It is this quality that drives Juan through a series of seductive misadventures across several continents over the course of his global journey. It is also what allows Byron to offer a satirical commentary on what he saw as the comitragic trajectory of the modern world. To me, there was something in this quality as well of the Orphean glance, which always looks back to the past while being propelled inexorably, reluctantly, forward in time. And there, “inexplicably mix’d” within this trait, too, was a strain of the cosmopolitan, along with a poignant anticipation of a triumphant Nietzschean laughter. Perhaps most importantly, however, was that this redeeming feature made Don Juan, at its heart, a comical work, and which permits us as contemporary readers to laugh along at the vagaries of history, the contradictions of exile, and at those sad ruminations over piles of ruins that Harold could never contend with.

Again, I confess: I teared up after that class. For I had experienced that recognizable feeling among those whose business it is to read great literature: of being made to finally understand, to have at long last achieved clarity while being spurred to dizzying heights of further questioning, further seeking, of wanting to know more. Perhaps it was in that cosmopolitan spirit of mobilité, then, that when I determined to embark on the PhD, I decided I would do it abroad in Canada.

For all of the perspective and insight Juan had given me since first reading it, though, it had hardly given me a fully fleshed out dissertation topic. When, three years ago, having completed my coursework and my comprehensive exams, I found myself sitting in my supervisor’s office at the University of Toronto, I had very little to offer up when asked what it was I finally wanted to work on. Nothing, really – a poem, with lots of ideas, but little else. I knew I wanted to work on Don Juan, but had no idea what I wanted to say about it. Nor did I have any inkling of how I would put it in conversation with the work of other Romantic authors. It was so unlike anything I had ever read: at once, Romantic and anti-Romantic. “Well,” he suggested, “you might have a look at an author I worked on in my last book.” That book, From Little London to Little Bengal: Religion, Print, and Modernity in Early British India, 1793–1835,[2] included a chapter on a young Anglophile, mixed-race author of Portuguese, Indian, and English descent, named Henry Derozio, whose importance to early Indian nationalism is well-known, but whose contributions as an author deeply influenced by British Romanticism are less remembered.

As I came to learn, it was barely two years after Byron had died in Greece, leaving Don Juan unfinished, that Derozio, profoundly moved by the work, picked up where Byron left off. Using the same ottava rima, Derozio composed “Don Juanics,” publishing it as a serial instalment in the India Gazette amidst early nineteenth-century British India’s thriving print culture. In it, he tells of Juan’s fortuitous arrival by way of the Ganges in that second city of Empire, colonial Calcutta. Amidst a flurry of questions as to what in the world Juan was doing in India, a moment of lucidity ensued, casting light on the direction of my project. “But, of course,” I mused. “I must follow Juan to India.”

“Whirlwind” might be the most appropriate characterization of my experience ever since. After several jaunts between London, Glasgow, and Kolkata over the past three years, two research stints in the British Library as well as the National Library of India, and more than one escapade with Nigel Leask in a Scottish cemetery in Kolkata, I found a project, a passion, and a purpose. And while it is a perennial source of insecurity that my direction has at times seemed wide-ranging at best, erratic at worst, it is always a reassurance to recall that the very source of Don Juan’s strength was similarly in its wandering, its mobilité – its lightning-charged “zig zag sublimity,”[3]

He knew not where he was, nor greatly cared,

For he was dizzy, busy, and his veins

Fill’d as with lightning – for his spirit shared

The hour, as is the case with lively brains;

And where the hottest fire was seen and heard,

He rushed […] (XIII. 257–64)

All of us cope with the writing process in our own ways. To incorporate the dissertation as part of a larger story, and to adopt a certain self-mythologizing about the struggles involved have proven useful exercises for me. As a result, so often is it the case that right in the midst of my garden variety bouts of graduate student doubt, exhaustion, and uncertainty, I’ll see him standing there just ahead, urging me forward. God knows whose bed he’s just rolled out of, what battle he’s emerged from, or shipwreck he’s narrowly survived, but he’s glancing back with a wry smile, motioning for me to follow. There’s Juan, with all the world before him.

[1] Lord Byron: The Complete Poetical Works, ed. By Jerome J. McGann, 7 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980–1993), V, 1071, n. 820. All references to Don Juan are given in parentheses, with canto and line number(s).

[2] Daniel E. White, From Little London to Little Bengal: Print, Religion, and Modernity in Early British India, 1793–1835 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013).

[3] See White, “‘Zig zag sublimity’: John Grant, the Tank School of Poetry, and the India Gazette, 1822–1829,” A History of Indian Poetry in English, Ed. Rosinka Chaudhuri, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016) 147-61.

What Happened To Dread in the Nineteenth Century? Fri, 08 Dec 2017 23:56:39 +0000 Continue reading What Happened To Dread in the Nineteenth Century? ]]> Although we normally discuss terror, horror, and the sublime in relation to early Gothic literature, I’d like to call our attention to another similar, but significantly distinguishable affect: dread. Dread is unique because of its future orientation, something we don’t normally talk about with the past-dominated Gothic. However, I’d like to present two readings of dread, in Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) and MG Lewis’s The Monk (1796) to demonstrate how integral this expectant affect is to the genre.     

The Castle of Otranto opens with speculations by the peasants regarding “the Prince’s dread of seeing accomplished an ancient prophecy, which was said to have pronounced, That the castle and lordship of Otranto should pass from the present family, whenever the real owner should be grown too large to inhabit it.1 Various body parts and accoutrements of a gigantic statue proceed to plague Manfred and his castle for the rest of the novella. Importantly, “dread” is the affect repeatedly attributed to Manfred as a result of this prophecy and its spectral manifestations. For instance, in the opening scene Manfred searches for his missing son Conrad and enters the court “dreading he knew not what” to find servants struggling to raise an enormous helmet from his macerated heir.2 There is thus an immediate correlation between the affect of dread and the presence of the giant statue, whose presence symbolizes illegitimacy and prophecies the demise of Manfred’s lordship of Otranto.

To dread is not simply to fear, but rather, “to look forward to with terror or anxiety.”3 Dread is therefore a state of fear that only arises when one’s thoughts are oriented towards the future. It is not the future event itself that evokes fear, however. Recall how Manfred enters the court “dreading he knew not what.” He is not yet aware that there exists a giant statue that has squashed his son, and that he will soon lose the castle of Otranto. Manfred experiences anxiety simply by contemplating an unknown future: Where is his son? What has happened to him? The acuity of Manfred’s dread sharpens as the future becomes clearer. The appearance of the prophesied statue guarantees a future in which he loses the lordship of Otranto. It is apprehension of this future loss, the affect of dread, that makes Manfred a brutal despot, for the narrator mentions early on, “Manfred was not one of those savage tyrants who wanton in cruelty unprovoked. The circumstances of his fortune had given an asperity to his temper, which was naturally humane…”4 In short, dread provokes Manfred’s cruelty toward the other characters, and his acts of despotism comprise the bulk of the plot. Thus, the affect of dread is not only crucial to the atmosphere of the story, but motivates its narrative.

Thus far I have defined dread as a state of fear felt in contemplation of a concrete (prophesied) or abstract (ambiguously contemplated) future. What I’ve been hinting at, and would now like to make clear, is that this future, regardless of how concrete or abstract it is, must be perceived as an inevitable one by the affected subject in order to elicit dread. For this reason, Otranto opens with a prophecy and ends with its fulfillment, which occurs in spite of Manfred’s frenzied attempts to resist it.

Similarly, an initial scene in The Monk presents a dramatic prophecy-like curse. When Ambrosio denies the pregnant nun Agnes mercy, she anathematizes: “But the day of trial will arrive. Oh! then, when you yield to impetuous passions; when you feel that man is weak, and born to err; when, shuddering, you look back upon your crimes, and solicit with terror the mercy of your God, oh! –in that fearful moment, think upon me! Think upon your cruelty! Think upon Agnes–and despair of pardon!”5 Thus far, Ambrosio has demonstrated remarkable piety and is revered by religious and common folk alike. It is after Agnes’s curse that the monk falls progressively deeper into depravity: admitting his attraction to the novice Rosario, indulging in carnal delights with the novice when he proves to be a woman named Matilda, slighting Matilda when he becomes attracted to the innocent Antonia, and ultimately planning the abduction and rape of Antonia that results in his murdering her mother. I do not mean to suggest that there is a causal relationship between Agnes’s malediction and Ambrosio’s iniquity, for she is no sorceress. Rather, the importance of her curse is that it establishes a future-orientation from the outset of the novel. Agnes alerts Ambrosio and the assumed Christian reader to the inevitability of Judgement Day, and evokes dread of God’s reckoning.

The Monk thus participates in what Paul Megna identifies as a “Judeo-­Christian tradition of dread­-based asceticism” that is “built around the ethical goal of living better through dread.”6 Megna references a long history of Middle English sermons, confession manuals, allegorical poems, dramas, and polemics to demonstrate the ubiquity of dread-­based emo­tional communities in medieval England. In these texts, dread frequently aligns with spiritual ideals like obedience and wisdom and serves to initiate salvation. Megna traces this tradition of dread-based devotion from the Middle Ages to the existential theories of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, particularly focusing on Søren Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Anxiety (1844), which was originally translated as The Concept of Dread. Kierkegaard distinguishes fear from anxiety based on the definiteness of the object. Fear has a definite object; for example, when standing on the edge of a cliff, a person is afraid of falling and dying painfully. Anxiety, on the other hand, “is freedom’s actuality as the possibility of possibility.”7 Simply put, anxiety, or dread, results when a person realizes her future can change depending on how she exerts her free will.

The Monk, published in 1796 but representing an imagined medieval Spain, exists at a transitional moment in Megna’s history of dread-based asceticism, bridging medieval religious doctrines and modern existentialism. Ambrosio’s dread amphibiously dips into both paradigms, while failing to correspond entirely to either, thus resulting in his demise. Megna elucidates how medieval preachers did not simply frighten the laity with fire and brimstone, but rather proscribed elaborate programs to distinguish between and transcend lower forms of dread (like dread of suffering) to the highest form of morally perfect dread: child-like dread of God out of reverent love. The point of experiencing dread in any case is to cultivate a moral life free from sin. The effectiveness of dread in thwarting sin is apparent in The Monk, when Ambrosio “no longer reflected with shame upon his incontinence, or dreaded the vengeance of offended heaven. His only fear was lest Death should rob him of enjoyments, for which his long Fast had only given a keener edge to his appetite.”8 Consequently, he “rioted in delights till then unknown to him: Swift fled the night, and the Morning blushed to behold him still clasped in the embraces of Matilda.”9 Suddenly devoid of dread, the once chaste monk is transformed into a nymphomaniac. However, at the end of the novel when he is in the dungeons of the Inquisition, Ambrosio’s dread returns in full force. He “believed himself doomed to perdition,” and thus signs his soul over to Satan, for he is convinced “by refusing the demon’s succor, He only hastened tortures which He never could escape.”10 In his final moments of reflection before signing the fatal contract, “With affright did he bend his mind’s eye on the space beyond the grave; nor could hide from himself how justly he ought to dread Heaven’s vengeance.”11 Ultimately, then, in a dramatic reversal of medieval religious doctrine, Ambrosio’s extreme dread of God’s judgment does not lead to reform and salvation, but the selling of his soul and damnation.

Although Ambrosio perceives his future perdition as unavoidable, the novel ends with the proposition that another future was possible: “Had you resisted me one minute longer,” says Satan, “you had saved your body and soul. The guards whom you heard at your prison-door came to signify your pardon.”12 Lewis, ever the master of irony, thus playfully invites the reader to imagine an alternative ending moments before having his wretched villain pulverized in a gorge and sent to eternal damnation. This moment of imagination prefigures Kierkegaard’s existential crisis as expressed in Concepts. Ambrosio was not, in fact, “doomed to perdition” as he believed. Agnes’s curse was not a binding supernatural malediction; it did not eliminate his free will. Ambrosio could have chosen to not sign the contract. However, because he perceived his future damnation as inevitable, his dread mounted to such a pitch that he could not imagine an alternative future where he was saved. The result is a twofold religious and existential tragedy: Ambrosio fails to transcend from dread to love of God (thus having faith in God’s forgiveness and salvation) and simultaneously fails to recognize his power of free will. Ambrosio is in fact devoid of anxiety as Kierkegaard sees it, for he fails to see “the possibility of possibility.”13 Ambrosio’s failure, I argue, is the product of a Gothically perceived future; that is, a future that is fixed and inevitable. The distinctly Gothic future, I would like to propose, is one that cannot be altered by free will.

These readings are a long way of getting to the question that motivated this article: What happened to dread in the nineteenth century? From the Middle Ages to the Romantic period, dread was a solemn affective posture of profound significance in theology, philosophy, and literature.

But, dread does not retain its serious, ecclesiastical denotation in nineteenth century literature. On the contrary, it becomes a frivolous and popular term, as indicated by the “penny dreadful” phenomenon. These cheap magazines with famously lurid covers and illustrations were purchased primarily by working class boys and related melodramatic crime stories like The String of Pearls; Or, Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet-Street (1847-49). At best, Victorian critics deemed the stories “exceedingly foolish and frivolous,”14 which prompted readers “to escape from thought.”15 At worst, penny dreadfuls were supposed to precipitate crime: “Find me the boy who murders his mother or steals his father’s watch, and I will find you the Penny Dreadful.”16 The dreadfulness of these tales, therefore, was historically attributed to their inferior prose style and their unethical utility.

Simultaneously, a number of comics appearing in Judy, Or the London Serio-Comic Journal depicted supposedly dreadful, but actually ridiculous, scenarios. For example, an 1872 cartoon titled “A Dreadful Thing to Happen” amusingly portrays a betrothed couple swimming in the sea at the same time, the man mistaking another man for his fiancée in the water, then both man and woman exiting the sea in such a rush that they enter each others’ bathing-machines and don each others’ clothes, after which they are both arrested by the police. This is, apparently, “a dreadful thing to happen.”

I am in earnest to explain this drastic evacuation of dread’s solemn significance! The Romantic period seems to be the tipping point, so I’m calling on my NASSR fellows for assistance:

What Romantic text (or image) best depicts dread?

Do you know any examples of silly dread in the Romantic period?

Sarah Kareem at UCLA has pointed out to me that awe/awful undergoes a similar transformation. Can you think of any similar examples?   

Other thoughts about this emptying of dread are very much appreciated! 

[1] Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto (Oxford UP, 1996), 17.

[2] Walpole, 19.

[3] “dread, v.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, June 2017, Accessed 8 December 2017.

[4] Walpole, 33.

[5] Matthew Lewis, The Monk (Oxford UP, 2016), 39.

[6] Paul Megna, “Better Living through Dread: Medieval Ascetics, Modern Philosophers, and the Long History of Existential Anxiety,” PMLA 2015, 130.5, 1286.

[7] Søren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Anxiety, trans. Alastair Hannah (W.W. Norton & Co., 2014), 42.

[8] Lewis, 173.

[9] Lewis, 173.

[10] Lewis, 333.

[11] Lewis, 326.

[12] Lewis, 338.

[13] Kierkegaard, 42.

[14] Francis Hitchman, “The Penny Press,” Macmillan’s Magazine, March 1881, 398.

[15] Hitchman, 385.

[16] Anonymous, “A Penny-Dreadful Scare,” The National Observer, 28 September 1895, 546.

The Gothic in the Balkans: Does it Really Exist? Sat, 02 Dec 2017 17:35:44 +0000 Continue reading The Gothic in the Balkans: Does it Really Exist? ]]> …or is it simply a by-product of the Western influence?

I’ve been googling the term Gothic romance in the Balkans, and in certain Balkan countries, apart from getting the search results connected to the Gothic genre and how it came into existence, not much information appeared,  specific to that part of the world, in literature, film or any other medium. I did, however, find articles and news reports of the Gothic as a lifestyle, fashion statement and part of the music genre, a “movement” that I belong to as well, but that is a story for a different post. In this post, I would like to focus more on the Gothic genre or the lack of its presence, other than the historical one, on the Balkan territory.

“Travelers, writers, even early anthropologists, visited the Balkans and then put their experiences into paper, to be shared with the rest of the European public. These early accounts of the Balkans have contributed in shaping the public’s opinion as to the perception of the unity of the Balkans as a whole and as to what is the Balkan Identity. Some of the stereotypes that surround the term Balkan are evident in these early works and, of course, are, even subconsciously so, compared with the western European perceptions of what is civilized. As a result the Balkan is presented as an ‘other’…”[1]

The result of this presence of writers from other countries in the world was the creation of some of the most popular fiction works that we study and analyse today, hence we have:

“…Lord Byron’s romantic poems about Greece, ‘The Prisoner of Zenda’ by Anthony Hope, Agatha Christie’s ‘The Secret of Chimneys’, Horace Walpole’s ‘The Castle of Otranto’ and the romantic gothic novel ‘Carmilla’ by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, one of the first novels to launch the ’vampire’ in literature.”[2]

All of them wrote about the landscape and the way of life in this strange, unknown and mysterious part of the world, but they didn’t use the real names of the places they were using as templates for their work, simply and possibly because they didn’t “sound rather genuinely ‘Balkan’.”[3] However, the most famous piece of fiction to date that explores the otherness of the Balkans is Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a beloved novel that changed everything in Gothic fiction.

I will not dwell on the subject of the novel, or the Balkan-ism of the same, instead I will try and connect some certain motifs with another work of fiction but in a different medium, a film by Dorde Kadijevic called Devicanska Svirka (A Maiden’s Song, A Song of Virgins, 1973).

During my research, what struck me as familiar while watching this unique film, and very atypical for the area and the time when it was filmed (during Yugoslavia’s existence, and on the brink of the so called Black Wave in Serbia, a movement that gave the artists, the filmmakers the opportunity to express themselves freely, without the shackles of the partisan propaganda at the time). Devicanska svirka follows a young man, Ivan (Goran Sultanovic), who ends up in the middle of nowhere in the rural setting of Serbia, and can’t get back to the city, the “civilisation”. Instead, he finds that a haunting melody that he hears comes from a nearby house on the hill, which is said to be haunted, according to the villagers. He meets the mistress of the house, beautiful and mysterious Sibila (Olivera Katarina), who lures him inside the house, from where Ivan, it seems, can’t get out of anymore, no matter how hard he tried. The first scenes of our protagonist travelling in the coach through the ominous rural landscape delightfully reminds of Jonathan Harker’s travel to the Dracula castle, the communication with the villagers who have the fear of the house itself and what dwells inside. The overall ominousness of the house is presented during daytime, which makes it even scarier, and more real. These, and other elements presented in an ingenious style of filming by Kadijevic, who is one of the most successful directors in Serbia, explore the Gothic in the Balkan setting, the uncivilised part of the world to many of the writers and filmmakers that sends chilling shivers down our spines with the idea of horror and terror and the unfamiliarity of the landscapes that are yet to be discovered by the rest of the world. Whether or not the Gothic as a genre existed at the time in this area, or whether it was a by-product of Western, more popular influences, its presence certainly cannot be ignored or denied. Nevertheless, is it here to stay, in the more contemporary setting, or was this only a one off occasion of the Gothic penetrating into the consciousness of the Balkan audiences?

Stay tuned for my next post to find out more!



[1] Tortomani, K. A Balkan Gothic: Bram Stoker’s ‘Drakula’ and the Balkan Identity, Balkan Studies 49 (2014), p.36-37.

[2] [2] Tortomani, K. A Balkan Gothic: Bram Stoker’s ‘Drakula’ and the Balkan Identity, Balkan Studies 49 (2014), p.37.

[3] [3] Tortomani, K. A Balkan Gothic: Bram Stoker’s ‘Drakula’ and the Balkan Identity, Balkan Studies 49 (2014), p.37.



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Interview with Dr. Nikki Hessell, Co-Winner of the 2017 NASSR/Romantic Circles Pedagogy Contest Thu, 30 Nov 2017 21:48:17 +0000 Continue reading Interview with Dr. Nikki Hessell, Co-Winner of the 2017 NASSR/Romantic Circles Pedagogy Contest ]]> Dr. Nikki Hessell is a co-winner of this year’s NASSR/Romantic Circles Pedagogy Contest, as announced at NASSR 2017 in Ottawa. Nikki is a Senior Lecturer in the School of English, Film, Theatre and Media Studies at the Victoria University of Wellington. She’s been kind enough to tell us about her submission and share some tips for graduate students on teaching Romanticism.

Caroline Winter: Hello, Nikki. Thank you for sharing your insights with us for the NGSC blog, and congratulations on your award! Could you tell us about your submission?

Nikki Hessell: Thanks Caroline, and thanks again to the organisers of the NASSR/Romantic Circles Pedagogy Contest. My submission was for a fourth-year course on Romanticism and Indigeneity. The course starts with some thinking and reading about the literary forms that already existed in countries like mine (Aotearoa New Zealand), throughout Te Moana-Nui-a-Kiwa (the Pacific Ocean), and across Turtle Island (the US and Canada). It then thinks about how the British Romantic authors responded to those traditions and the people making those works, and how indigenous authors in those places in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries responded to the Romantic literature they encountered through forced or voluntary experiences in colonial education systems.

Caroline: That sounds amazing! What motivated you to develop this particular course?

Nikki: That’s a big question with lots of sides to it. I could talk about this for a long time, but I’ll try to give a short summary.

  1. I’d like to see more indigenous students studying English literature, but there’s no point just saying that, even sincerely, and then sitting back and waiting for it to happen. What is our field doing to make studying literature (Romantic literature especially) as interesting and relevant as, say, studying law, or health sciences, or education, or history?
  2. Romantic studies is well-equipped to make a contribution, since our period overlaps with a the era of imperial expansion and because the literature itself is so engaged with indigeneity. But we need to talk about colonisation from within colonised cultures, not simply as something the British did.
  3. Like most Pākehā (white settler) scholars and teachers, I’ve had to think long and hard about my role here, especially in terms of appropriation. But I’ve come to believe that it is better to use my expertise and my position to create conditions for a new generation of scholars to replace me. The only way to find those scholars is to be willing to train them. And the political situation in Aotearoa means there is considerably more enthusiasm and understanding in an institution like mine than in other parts of the colonised world, so I thought it might be useful to NASSR if I took a leadership role in this area of our field.

Caroline: How does this course fit into your larger research project or areas of interest?

Nikki: My main area of research interest is the intersection of Romanticism and indigeneity, so this is a perfect fit! As my answer above probably indicates, it’s taken me a while to think through the ethical and pedagogical issues of such a course. But working on my forthcoming book (Romantic Literature and the Colonised World: Lessons from Indigenous Translations, Palgrave 2018) has given me years to consider the ways in which Romanticism and indigenous epistemologies interacted from the Romantic period onwards, and also to develop my own skills to be a useful teacher in this area. I’m at work on a new project that will influence the course as well.

Caroline: How did students respond to the course? What was it like to teach it?

Nikki: That remains to be seen! I developed it just in time for the NASSR 2017 conference, and it will be offered in the next cycle of fourth year courses at my institution. But I have taught parts of the course in other contexts already, as I’ve been developing them, and the response has been very positive. One student told me that they felt like the understood modern New Zealand better for understanding the connections between Romanticism and colonial experience, and that was part of what I was hoping students would see. I’m particularly looking forward to taking students to the marae (meeting house) for some of our class time.

Caroline: Please send us an update; I’d love to know how it goes. What advice do you have for graduate students who are developing their own Romanticism courses?

Nikki: Remember that developing as a teacher is a lifelong experience: you don’t have to solve all of the challenges of Romantic pedagogy today. There’s real value in being able to teach what we might think of as a standard Romantic literature course, and there are almost always opportunities within that course for discussion of how the field is changing and where it’s headed. Your own research interests can help change the way even very familiar texts get read in the classroom.

Caroline: Romanticism is such as broad, interdisciplinary field that it can feel overwhelming even thinking about where to start, so this is great advice. Thanks again for telling us about the course and your research.

NGSC Statement Regarding NASSR-L Thu, 23 Nov 2017 19:03:16 +0000 Continue reading NGSC Statement Regarding NASSR-L ]]> Dear Fellow Graduate Students,

I am posting the following statement of behalf of the NASSR Graduate Student Caucus.

“The NASSR Graduate Caucus echoes the statements made by the NASSR Advisory Committee and Executive Board regarding what has been occurring on the NASSR-L and supports their decision to disaffiliate from the listserv. We are working towards creating a more collegial space, both online and offline, for the Romantic graduate community. If you have any suggestions, or would like to contact the co-chairs directly, please email Please also keep in touch via Facebook (NASSR Graduate Student Caucus), Twitter (@NASSRGrads), and the NGSC Blog (”

Is The Author Dead In Your Classroom? Wed, 01 Nov 2017 14:12:06 +0000 Continue reading Is The Author Dead In Your Classroom? ]]> When an undergraduate professor assigned Roland Barthes and told me, “The Author Is Dead,”1 I heard with elation the clarion cry of burgeoning self-importance. I was no longer a measly high school student who naively derived literature’s meaning from the author’s personal psychology. No, no, I was a college student now and could refer to The Text as Ding an sich. In fact, by interpreting it, I was basically writing the darn thing! Reborn as a liberated reader, I ultimately heeded the call to become a literary critic myself.

In my first two years as a graduate student teaching at UCLA, I thoroughly enjoyed murdering the author for the benefit of my students (so I thought). I recognized the glow in many faces, which had once beamed from mine. I patted myself on the back for being (dare I say it?) like Wordsworth and Helen Vendler — “What we have loved, Others will love, and we will teach them how.”2 More importantly, the students who appeared most excited by the death of the author were the ones who produced the best papers. You know, papers that actually presented an original argument (not simply regurgitating what I said in lecture) grounded in extended analyses of formal literary devices. On the other end of the spectrum, a species of bad papers that I was particularly loath to receive were ones that Romantically psychologized the author to interpret his or her work. My least favorite: Byron’s personal fear of the dark explains the terror of “Darkness.” Ugh!

To crystallize the “good” practice of interpretation without heeding the author, I insisted students write about “the speaker” rather than the poet, and “the narrator” rather than the novelist. I thought I was training my students in an undisputed convention of our field….

Then I read John Farrell’s The Varieties of Authorial Intention: Literary Theory Beyond the Intentional Fallacy,3 which came out earlier this year. I hated to admit it, but I immediately recognized the need to reassess my teaching practices. 

I highly recommend you peruse The Varieties of Authorial Intention (and I promise you’ll actually enjoy reading the beautifully articulated, logically organized, and blessedly concise prose style). Farrell’s aim is to bring the author back into critical conversations. His main point is straightforward: it is the author’s intention that allows us to recognize a text as a work of art. “[T]o think of a literary work as a mere text,” argues Farrell, “is to neglect its impact and value as a human gesture made in a concrete historical situation toward a potentially identifiable audience.”4 Elegantly weaving between historicism and New Criticism,  Farrell is keen to emphasize “that a text’s need for intentional grounding does not mean that evidence about intentions outside the text of an utterance must play a key epistemic role in literary interpretation.”5 Besides the polemical claim for intentionality, the scintillating close readings of a vast array of texts (my favorites analyze Pride and Prejudice, Through the Looking Glass, and Emily Dickinson’s “Success is counted sweetest”) are the most impressive and delightful characteristic of this book.

Farrell differentiates the monolith of Authorial Intention into three varieties: communicative, artistic, and practical intent.

The author’s communicative intention is what exactly he or she means by the words and sentences in a work: “If the reader can understand the sentences of a literary work in their local context, the symbolic dimensions of the work, and what the point of the whole roughly seems to be, then the author’s communicative intentions have succeeded.”6 So, step one is recognizing that an author intentionally wrote words on a page to communicate something. Step two is understanding the language itself.

Only by comprehending the meaning of the words can we then assess the artistic intention, which refers to “the authors’ attempts to provide a valuable reading experience by creating literary effects—to move, amuse, perplex, inspire, instruct, or infuriate the reader using all means at hand—verbal skill, mastery of structure, imagery, metaphor, narrative forms and genres, or the flouting of any of these.”7 Evaluations of artistic intention, unlike communicative intention, do not succumb to the author’s authority. Even when we grasp the communicative intention, the artistic intention can fail. Think of it in this everyday scenario: someone tells a joke and you understand the words (the communicative intention), but you just don’t find it funny. Although you recognize the joker’s artistic intention to be funny, you’re still not moved to laugh.   

Finally, practical intentions are what motivate the composition of a work: “to impress others, give them pleasure, earn a living, gain status, sexual opportunities, the power to influence opinion, change the world, or keep the world the same.”8 The key point here is that practical intentions do not change the meaning of a work. They might change our attitude toward it, but they do not changed the communicative intention.

I surely can’t do justice to the richly textured debates examined in The Varieties of Authorial Intention. But I hope this post motivates you to reconsider the role of the author in your teaching practice. Perhaps it will impact your research as well, but I think the classroom is where the author is consistently and most egregiously exterminated. How might we guide students to evaluate, or at least consider, the varieties of authorial intention, while still meticulously and incisively analyzing language and form like Farrell does?

Here’s the easy experiment I’m going to try in my own classroom. I’ll select a passage or a chapter from the reading and begin class by asking the students to write for a few minutes: What happened in this selection? Then explain that their responses (which are hopefully all similar) reflect the author’s communicative intention, and I’ll quickly explain what that is in a little more detail. Next, I’ll ask, “Ok, what’s the artistic intention of this selection, and, in your opinion, did the author succeed or fail?” I’ll optimistically envision that this opens up a ripe debate that draws our attention to the literary devices that make the text artistic (keep your fingers crossed for me). Finally, I’d conclude the exercise by giving a micro-lecture explaining the practical intention behind the work (like if we were reading Frankenstein, I would alert them to Mary Shelley’s 1831 preface about the scary story contest on that rainy night at Lake Geneva, in addition to, as Ellen Moers points out in Literary Women, her fraught experiences with childbirth9). Then I would ask, “How does this information affect your attitude toward the novel?” And follow up with, “How has the reception and representation of Frankenstein over the past two centuries impacted your attitude toward the original novel?”

At the very least, I think this practice of differentiating between the varieties of authorial intention in the classroom could reduce those bad biographical papers and help students to more critically analyze their biases towards a text based on its practical intentions and impact over time. Identifying artistic intentions can be the jumping off point for deeper conversations about the most important points of analysis in an undergraduate English class: form, structure, syntax, diction, imagery, metaphor, and all those other wonderful literary devices.

Please share your thoughts! Are you convinced (or, at least, interested) by the intentional argument? Have you tried this in your classroom?

[1] See Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” in Image-Music-Text, trans. Stephen Heath (New York: Hill & Wang, 1977). 

[2] See Helen Vendler, “What We Have Loved, Others Will Love,” in Falling Into Theory, ed. David H. Richter (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000), 31.

[3] John Farrell, The Varieties of Authorial Intention: Literary Theory Beyond the Intentional Fallacy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).

[4] Farrell, 10.

[5] Farrell, 31.

[6] Farrell, 37.

[7] Farrell, 39.

[8] Farrell, 38.

[9] See Ellen Moers, Literary Women (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1976).

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